SINGAPORE: If you were in charge of admissions at a school with only one place to spare, which of these three students would you give it to?
Would you give it to Alan, who consistently scores top marks despite often being caught sleeping in class, whose parents have spared no expense to give him the best tutors and enrichment classes, and who also happens to be a national swimmer?
Would you give it to Mei Ling, a girl who does reasonably well in her studies, is passionate about dance, takes lessons at her local community club and helps train students in her school’s dance CCA?
Or would you give it to Swee Wee, who works hard and consults her teachers at school frequently, but does not do well academically due to her struggles with the English language and her parents’ inability to afford private tutors?
It is a question with no easy answers. But these Secondary 2 students at Swiss Cottage Secondary were trying their utmost to tackle it.
“National swimmers have more recognition than the president of a school CCA,” said a student.
But another student countered, to laughter from the class: “What if he keeps losing?”
“Mei Ling is the president of the school’s dance CCA,” piped up another student. “So she has leadership skills, and she helps the younger students. I think that’s more important than being a national swimmer.”
The lively discussion took place during an hour-long, weekly class named Global Perspectives, which is part of the school’s Global Perspectives Programme.
The programme hopes to teach students a plethora of skills, including critical thinking, exploring different points of view and ultimately, encourage them to suggest initiatives for social action.
The topic of the day was meritocracy and social inequality. But other topics like racial differences, multiculturalism and immigration are also part of the curriculum.
Students also go for excursions or take up hands-on projects for the programme, which was first piloted in 2013 and integrated into the school’s curriculum for all lower secondary students.
“Last year, we visited a migrant worker’s dorm,” said Secondary 2 student Aleena Lim. “Most people have the impression that they just slack off every day, but we saw their living conditions, and realised that their life is very tough.”
“We learned how to take the perspective of the workers, and we understood how they would feel if other people were to criticise them.”
REFRESHED APPROACH TO NATIONAL EDUCATION: MORE SCHOOL AUTONOMY IN SHAPING SUCH PROGRAMMES
More school-driven initiatives like Swiss Cottage’s Global Perspectives Programme are likely to be on the cards for schools here, with the Ministry of Education’s announcement in March of a new, refreshed approach to National Education (NE).
The refreshed approach, spearheaded following a year-long review by the 30-member NE Review Committee, features three key thrusts that schools are encouraged to frame their NE efforts around.
For example, NE discussions will take on more contemporary issues, such as what students at Swiss Cottage are experiencing. And these discussions, explained Senior Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary in March, will also create safe spaces for students to have respectful conversations, whether they agree or disagree with each other and their teachers.
Schools would also be given the autonomy to implement their own changes based on the profiles and needs of their students. And this means different interpretations of what constitutes NE could emerge, said NE Review Committee member and founder of The Thought Collective, Tong Yee.
“Different people come from different walks of life, races, religions and background, and NE means something different for everyone,” he explained. “For example, there could be Christian values that might speak into what is meaningful for me as a citizen, and as a Buddhist, I might feel differently.”
He stressed that the content – and core NE messages, such as the idea that no one owes Singapore a living – will remain the same. But schools will have the autonomy to make that message relevant to students of diverse background.
“The sense of NE so far, is that it’s a very good historical tool,” added fellow committee member and executive director of social enterprise The Hidden Good Wu Jiezhen. “People learn about Sir Stamford Raffles landing in Singapore, how we ate tapioca during WWII, and how we overcame all the challenges we faced as a new nation.”
But she said that the feedback from teachers, students and other stakeholders were that they did not just want to learn about the past, but also learn about contemporary issues and take ownership of how the new NE narrative is shaped.
“When you teach the future, the future is not set, so you can’t teach a set curriculum,” she said. “That’s why one of the new thrusts is really about teaching the students about contemporary issues, to get them to think about how we are today, and how we can actively play a role in the Singapore that we want for the future.”
“That’s a lot more active participation, rather than just passively receiving information.”
MORE SUPPORT FOR TEACHERS ESSENTIAL IN SHIFT
For this approach to work, both committee members said supporting teachers and giving them the skills to design and conduct such programmes is essential. Which, perhaps, would explain why the third thrust of the refreshed NE approach focuses on giving teachers more opportunities for professional development.
“It’s not super easy to deal with contemporary issues,” explained Ms Wu. “So how can we equip teachers with the skill sets to facilitate conversations, rather than just delivering content?”
Professional development and more support at the school level were also raised by teachers involved in developing the school’s Global Perspectives Programme at Swiss Cottage.
The team, which includes staff members from various disciplines across the school, developed their materials and approach from scratch and tweaked it based on how students responded.
Teachers involved in the programme hold regular professional development sessions, where they meet to address potential discussion points students might bring in, and talk about how they can tackle them.
“Regardless of what subject you’re teaching, it’s useful, because you construct knowledge together as professionals,” said Mini Sathiya Sidhan, the teacher facilitating the lesson on meritocracy. “We also need to be very responsive to changes, because sometimes when someone prepares a lesson, it may not work in every class, and we sometimes get it changed on the day itself.”
To that end, Mdm Sathiya noted, support from her colleagues in the school and professional development to help teachers develop soft skills like facilitating discussions on current affairs are extremely helpful.
“When we offer students multiple perspectives on current affairs, we need to be aware of all the different perspectives, and also help students sift out the accuracy of the information,” said another teacher, Vicki Yong.
“We also had to bounce off a lot of different ideas about the various scenarios that could come up in class, what examples we should give, and how it should reflect different perspectives.”
“So these professional development sessions are actually very critical to level up teachers’ knowledge on a certain issue.”
EXCITING FIRST STEPS, BUT ONUS LIES ON STUDENTS TO TAKE CHARGE
With schools being given the freedom to design and develop their own programmes, the sky’s the limit – and there are already several interesting ideas on the horizon, both committee members said.
“I know one school that’s developing an entirely new CCA centred around Singapore,” said Mr Tong. “So you get badges and points ... and you become a better Singaporean.”
“We always say that doing good doesn’t have to look a certain way, and I think that’s relevant to the new approach to NE,” added Ms Wu. “It’s for people to explore different versions of what it means to them.”
“So you don’t have to volunteer at a beach clean-up if you want to support climate action,” she said. “It’s great if you do, but you don’t have to do that. You can come up with your own ideas ... like running an advocacy campaign in schools to get students to bring their own lunch boxes to reduce plastic waste.”
But the true core of the shift, both committee members stressed, is seeing students take ownership and initiative of creating the NE curriculum of the future.
“Some schools have very interesting ideas and programmes, so we really want more schools to also get on board,” said Ms Wu. “But the narrative really needs to come from the ground-up: from the students themselves.”
“We all know that the next generation will be the ones running Singapore in the future,” added Mr Tong. “And it’s not about us entertaining them so they have a good experience with NE.”
“It’s more about developing the skills in the students now, so they become civic leaders, and start coming up with their own ideas.”
While he pointed out that there is “a lot of work to be done” and it could take at least five to 10 years before seeing this really bear fruit in the students, Mr Tong said he has high hopes for schools and students.
"Schools used to engage us to run trails in the community to grow in community understanding," he explained. "But some schools are now asking for training to design trails, or ask their students lead the trail themselves."
“So they want student development, and skill-set building, which is really the right focus,” he said. “So by doing this, it's going to make more schools have this shift, or accelerate the shift.
“I have hope for them.”